Last January, storyteller Mike Daisey achieved a level of celebrity rarely attained among the off-Broadway set when the public radio program This American Life aired portions of his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. After the broadcast, a reporter discovered that Daisey had fabricated and conflated some details of his account of his trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, that produces Apple products.
The reporter's findings caused This American Life to retract the story and to air an uncomfortable conversation between Daisey and host Ira Glass. That episode, "Retraction," received more attention than any other in the show's history. In the ensuing scandal, Daisey was pegged as a liar, a sociopath, and worse. In a story for The Baffler magazine about the pathos of This American Life, I exonerated Daisey for having given public-radio listeners what they wanted.
Recently, I called Daisey to talk about life-after-scandal and his new piece, American Utopias, which he brings to ArtsEmerson's "The Next Thing" festival this weekend.
I think you’re the only person who reacted to the article I wrote for The Baffler. I expected some indignation, but maybe you got all the indignation from This American Life fans. How sick are you of talking about that? I noticed ArtsEmerson billed you as a “controversial playwright.” It’s funny about that word “controversial” . . . Although it’s very negative, it also sells tickets. I’ve actually been controversial for a really long time.
In 2008, I did a monologue called How Theater Failed America about the failings of the regional theater system that I spent a lot of time working in, and how it’s fundamentally more about building buildings than making art. In the context of the theater, it was an incredibly scathing and sort of dangerous piece, so I was controversial from that for a couple of years. Usually “controversial” changes to “provocative,” which is not going to hurt you as much.
Tell me about the new show. It’s a monologue called American Utopias. It’s fundamentally about three different participatory communities: people who are very obsessed with Disneyworld. . . people that participate in Burning Man every year, and it’s also about Occupy Wall Street and Zucotti Park.
My monologues tend to follow things I’m obsessed with. I’m interested in the theatrical event: gathering people together actually is its own kind of community building. It mirrors these events as a time-based utopian exercise. I really like how these events form the theatrical experience and the creation of these small utopias, how we all choose to participate in them for a time and then we go back to our regular lives, changed or unchanged by our own experiences.
These places are all incredibly similar— for the people for whom the event is vital and important, it’s the most important place on earth to them in that time they’re there, and it often lives on in their dreams after they are no longer present. The happenings run on the same sort of engine of tribalism which we now call “community,” because tribes get a bad rap.
I see visits to Disneyland as chronological progressions, visions from Disney’s patriarchal, top-down, singular vision of what childhood means. We engage in and we participate in this nostalgic ritual, then we bring our children and our children will bring their children in this recreation of childhood.